Books

'Frankenstein Dreams': When Sci-fi Lumbered into the Victorian Era

Did the Victorians deal with their rapidly changing society better than civilization today is dealing with equally new dizzying discoveries?

Michael Sims opens his book Frankenstein Dreams: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Science Fiction with a quote that is probably as true now as it was in 1818: "Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change."

The quote comes from Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (and not surprisingly comes from the "monster" who arguably has more common sense than does his creator).


Frankenstein Dreams: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Science Fiction

Michael Sims

(Bloomsbury)

September 2017

Whether or not Frankenstein is the very first work of science fiction is debatable. That said, it is arguably the book that opens the modern era of science fiction and introduces many of the archetypes found in more current science fiction (most notably the idea of the mad scientist and as a cautionary tale about the powers and dangers of scientific discoveries). A complicated and mythic book—it's almost hard to imagine it was written by a teenager.

For these reasons and others (including, as Sims notes, the enduring popularity of the story) Frankenstein is a perfect starting point for this book—an anthology that is both meant to celebrate the genre of science fiction and to "chronicle how Western civilization responded to the dizzying new discoveries of the nineteenth century".

There is much to celebrate in terms of 19th century science fiction. Most likely even the most tepid sci-fi fan is already familiar with the contributions H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne made to the genre. Other familiar names, but names not necessarily connected with science fiction include Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Some names—such as E. Nesbit and Grant Allen—may be less familiar but their contributions are no less notable.

Sims includes a lot of great stories (as well as excerpts from longer works such as Frankenstein, Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, The Island of Dr. Moreau and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea). They, along with the brief introduction Sims provides for each, are fun to read. Still—what might be most interesting, though, is reading them as a collection and attempting to see what's changed—and what hasn't.

One thing that has changed is that most contemporary science fiction isn't mistaken for news—today fake news seems much more about politics rather than whether or not someone spied life on the moon or has been mesmerized. As Sims notes, Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", a story that focuses on mesmerism, was "often mistaken for an actual case history".

Some of the science has changed—we don't see many science fiction stories about traveling to the moon or discoveries that allow us to "hear" the past. Other times, though, the science seems much more modern, such as with Alice W. Fuller's "A Wife Manufactured to Order" which, as the title suggests, shows a world where someone can purchase a pleasant albeit robotic "companion for life for a few hundred dollars". Many of the somewhat mad scientists found in the book along with things like the genetic manipulations found in "Monsters Manufactured" also don't seem that far removed from the science fiction of the 20th (or even the 21st) century.

E. Nesbit (the E stands for Edith) seems somewhat ahead of her time with Lucilla, a character in "The Five Senses", who apparently breaks things off with her scientist fiancé because of their differing opinions on animal testing: "They're all God's creatures" Lucilla tells him. Even after he relates "Spencer Wells, that operation he perfected, it's restored thousands of women to their husbands—saved thousands of women for their children", Lucilla simply responds with a sentiment that would resonate with many today: "I don't care what he's done -- it's wrong if it's done that [by torturing rabbits] way."

Amazon's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle has perhaps brought attention back to the alternative history genre of science fiction, and Sims includes a sampling from this area as well. Edward Page Mitchell's "The Senator's Daughter" is a story that "casually envisions an America in which the Chinese have won a war with the United States and characters communicate by personal radio, travel from New York to Washington, D.C., via fast pneumatic tubes, dine on pills of condensed nutrition... and argue the virtues of the Mongol-Vegetarian political party."

Sims definitely achieves his goal: "to chronicle how Western civilization responded to the dizzying new discoveries of the nineteenth century." This goal, however, leads to a question: How did Western civilization respond? Granted, all we have here is a sampling (although a very nice sampling) from the 19th century, but using this collection as a guide, it appears they responded to these new discoveries with wit, thought, a lot of good writing and often not a lot of scientific detail.

Did the Victorians deal with their rapidly changing society better than civilization today is dealing with equally new dizzying discoveries? That's a hard question to answer, but perhaps it's somewhat comforting to know that those living in the 21st century aren't the first ones (and most likely won't be the last) to struggle with new technologies and discoveries.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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